Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Anna on War

The term's over and we're well into exam season.  More importantly, I'll be on leave soon, which means I hope to get back to posting blog posts regularly after a prolonged silence.  It's been another helluva year.  But the teaching has gone better than last, I think, as I've adjusted to life with two wee, wonderful children.

Not only is it exam season:  it's also rejection season.  I invested lots of effort in a big grant (SSHRC Insight) back in the late summer.  But to no avail.  After getting the bad news, I considered abandoning my proposed research project (the follow-up to all this stuff I'm working on now).  With the size of these grants and the lag time between proposal, application, success, and funding, you gotta think long term - or plan for things way down the road. 

Anyway, I considered shifting to Agathias.  It's definitely something I plan to do someday, and I thought this might be the time.  I also considered turning to the impact of war in the age of Justinian project, which I paused with the publication of Heather's book.  In the end, however, I've decided to stick with a big, long-term project on Ammianus Marcellinus.  I've already got some revisions already, which I think will make it a much better proposal when I reapply in the fall.

So what does all this have to do with Anna (and by Anna I mean Anna Komnene)?  Well, I also contemplated the merits of jumping to the middle Byzantine period, something else I've contemplated.  In the end, it seemed to me that too much work would be required of me to get it ready in time to reapply in October:  while I wouldn't entirely be starting from scratch, it wouldn't be far off.

One thing that has struck me, however, while thinking about this Ammianus project and thinking vaguely about later Byzantine historiography has been some of the points made by Nadeja Williams in this excellent article in Eidolon:  In that article, Williams says,

"women are socialized differently, their scholarship on military history is often different from the scholarship traditionally done by men. Put simply, women tend to ask different research questions about the nature of war than men have done, and tend to be more interested in the human experience and the reality of suffering in war for all who experience military conflicts."

One of the angles to my Ammianus project is a consideration of his interest in the human experience of war, which seems much more pronounced than Procopius', though which might be comparable to Agathias'.  While all three are men, of course, we do have one later female historian, namely Anna Komnene.  Can we find a different approach to combat in Anna, one that differs from the typical male approach we find in other classicizing historians, whether early or middle Byzantine? 

Unfortunately, my only frame of reference is the earlier historians, so I can't compare her account with her contemporaries and near contemporaries (something for another day?).  But, I thought I'd take a look at one battle, and one that jumped out was the Battle of Kalavrye fought in 1078 between the the forces of Bryennios and those of Alexios.  A civil war battle, yes, that comes early in the Alexiad, but one that she describes in some detail.  And, although she can make no claims to being there, she obviously had good access to one of the principal participants (her father), if not both (if Bryennios was her father-in-law).  Before I raise a few points, I should say that some have disparaged her accounts of battle:  the translators of the revised Penguin version called her descriptions of battle "the least impressive passages in the history" in the midst of an otherwise glowing assessment.

In this one case, is Anna more interested in the human experience of war, at least in this one battle (described at 1.4.1ff)?  Well, at the start she includes some expected elements, like relative deployment and composition of the two forces, and a comment or two about the fortune of war.  Not surprisingly, she does tend to single in on individual soldiers, and officers, and her father at that (the heroic lead of her Alexiad, and by her reckoning an equal to Scipio Aemilianus or even Hannibal (1.1.3)).  It's not surprising, however, because this is what "good" Byzantine historians had been doing for centuries, as tradition dictated.  That said, Anna includes some remarkable descriptions of the human experience of combat. 

In the midst of the catalogue of forces, for instance, Byrennios, "circling round in their midst like some Ares or a Giant standing out head and shoulders above all others, taller by a cubit, was in truth an object of wonder and dread to those who saw him" (1.4. - all translations from the updated Penguin edition). A little later, while the battle is well and truly under way, we get this:  "Seeing all this Alexius covered his face, drawing down the vizor fastened to the rim of his helmet, and with the six men I spoke of before rushed violently against them" (1.5).  Alexios single-handedly emboldens his side by snatching the the emperor's horse and leading it back to his men.  Then,

"Wherever they happened to be they stood motionless, looking back to the rear and amazed beyond all belief by what they saw. It was indeed an extra-ordinary sight: the horses on which they rode were gazing to the front, but the faces of the riders turned backwards; they neither advanced nor had they any intention of wheeling about, but just stopped, dumbfounded and utterly unable to understand what had happened. The Scyths thought of home and were already on their way; they had no further interest in pursuit, but far off from both armies wandered around at random with their booty."

Anna doesn't fly around from general to general, but zooms in on smaller groups with their officers and focuses on their experiences - physical, emotional, and pyschological.  She has any eye for the vivid detail too.  A bit later, having switched to Bryennios, we find this episode:

"He himself, the deviser of the whole stratagem, followed immediately behind them with as many soldiers collected from his scattered forces as the circumstances demanded. At this point one of the ‘Immortals’ serving under him, a hot-headed, reckless fellow, spurred on his horse in front of the rest and slackening rein charged straight for Bryennius. He thrust his spear very hard at Bryennius’ chest, but he, drawing his sword quickly, before the spear could be driven home cut it off above the point, struck his attacker by the collar-bone, and as he bore down with all his might severed his whole arm, cutting right through his breastplate. Meanwhile the Turks riding up one after the other covered the enemy with showers of arrows. Bryennius’ men were overwhelmed by the unexpectedness of this onslaught; nevertheless they recovered and re-formed ranks. Calling upon one another to endure like men they bore the shock of the attack."

Things get worse for the general a bit later:

"But when his [Bryennios'] horse grew weary, unable either to flee or even pursue (for it was almost at its last gasp through constant chargings) Bryennius reined it in, and like some noble athlete stood ready for combat, challenging two high-born Turks to fight. One struck at him with his spear, but was not fast enough to give a heavy blow; instead he received a heavier one from Bryennius’s right arm, which, too quick for him, cut off his hand with his sword, and hand and spear rolled to the ground. The other Turk leapt down from his horse and panther-like jumped on to Bryennius’ mount, fastening himself on its flank, and there he clung desperately, trying to climb on its back. Bryennius like a wild beast kept twisting round and tried to stab him off with his sword, but without success, for the Turk behind him kept swaying to avoid the blows. Eventually his right arm tired of striking at empty air and himself worn out with fighting, Bryennius surrendered to the main body of the enemy. They seized him and like men who have won great glory took him off to Alexius. The latter was standing not far away from the place where Bryennius was taken and was at the time marshalling the Turks and his own men, encouraging them to fight."

This is remarkable stuff.  There's nothing quite like this in Ammianus, Procopius, and Agathias, so far as I can remember.  I'll have to look closer at Anna and her contemporaries' and near-contemporaries' accounts, but Williams' comments might not only apply to modern scholarship, but to medieval authors too.  More to come...eventually...

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